GUEST BLOG – Gul Turner, co-editor of Comma’s The Book of Istanbul writes on Sema Kaygusuz, to celebrate the release of The Well of Trapped Words, a collection of selected stories, translated by renowned translator Maureen Freely. Since featuring her in The Book of Istanbul, Gul has watched Sema’s career and development as a writer, and shares these observations on her work, background and stories with us.
Yazi, (writing) also means kader, (fate) in Turkish (as it is written). It must have been Sema Kaygusuz’s fate to write and not every writer is born with a unique story either. She has lived in various regions across Turkey due to her father’s military career. A wide range of folk tales, legends, stories have been stored from her childhood and become her greatest sources of inspiration.
Ironically, her surname, Kaygusuz, meaning ‘without a worry’ came from a great poet, Kaygusuz Abdal, who lived in Anatolia in the fourteenth century. In contradiction of her surname, she became a worrier.
The biggest inspirations came from her grandmother’s tales – of trees, stones, wells and snakes that speak… but her grandmother never revealed anything of her family’s secret history. A grandmother who felt guilty – guilty for being alive by surviving a massacre. Thousands were killed; she lost her parents, probably everyone she knew. But she never talked to anyone – instead she chose to live as a different individual with another identity. Her son, Sema’s father, also never knew anything about her. This silence haunts young Sema and she starts to investigate, building her reputation as a voice for voiceless, powerless segments of society.
I met Sema when she was in her early 20’s, when prestigious literary critics introduced her as ‘the most promising young author’. They were absolutely right about that, as she gained important literary awards before she reached thirty. Sema soon became one of our regular guest authors who toured different cities – most of them were disadvantaged areas, that we called ‘Cultural Tours’.
When I was co-editing the Book of Istanbul, Sema Kaygusuz was one of the names that I really wanted to include in this anthology. Her story, A Couple of People, takes us onto the streets of Istanbul where we feel we can hear a groan, a cry, a scream or maybe a curse. This is the city I was born and brought up in.
Sema Kaygusuz moulds her stories from rich soil – from Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Her stories are a perfect mosaic of all these regions. Her fictional world is full of Greek, Armenian, Persian, Alevism, Shamanism and all the myths. Everything blends in a story and the more you read it the more they all burst one by one from the pages.
‘Dignity first, then art’, says Sema in one of her essays. She has her own dignity and she is an artist as well. Short stories, novels, plays, scripts – whatever she touches she turns them into gold, albeit as fragile as gold leaf. What I love about her is that she stands up against sexism, homophobia, fascism and other human shortcomings. Not politically but ideologically. It is not hard to see reflections of our own lives as her stories push the boundaries until we reached the truths.
I find Sema’s stories bursting with life, the beauty and cruelty of our world. There are some hilarious scenes, you could easily notice the power of observation, shedding all her pain, sorrow, anger, joy and of course, love.
I totally agree that she refuses to be labelled as a female writer who is Turkish and Muslim – Turkish writers’ works are only published if they fit a preconceived/misconceived model of orientalism. She exists with her own perspectives on literature, with her works neither representing the country she lives in or its religion. She is known as one of the best modern writers in my country, Turkey, who has found her own language and style.
Her works have been published in French, German, Swedish and Norwegian and now in English. We are very lucky that one of the best translators, Maureen Freely, has become Sema Kaygusuz’s English voice. The Well of Trapped Words offers us a truly fascinating and engaging narrative. I truly hope English readers will embrace this magical writer and love her.
You can find links to the ebook versions of The Well of Trapped Words, as well as paperbacks, on the Comma Press website. You can also find the book in bookshops!